Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment
by Mark Liu
The rise of fast fashion in Australia means 6000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. The ABC’s War On Waste visualised this statistic by piling a giant mound of clothing waste in the middle of the city. So what to do about it?
Sustainable fashion experts advocate abstaining from buying fast fashion, promoting clothing swaps and repairing old clothing. Others suggest buying organic and ethically-sourced clothes or designing clothing using zero waste techniques. The hope is that greater transparency in supply chains will lead to an end to sweatshops and unsustainable fashion practices.
These are admirable initiatives, but they only reduce wastage or delay garments from ending up in landfill. They do not address the fact that the scale of fast fashion is so massive it can easily eclipse other sustainability initiatives. Nor do they address the wastefulness of existing technologies and the urgent need to research new ones.
Even if we could magically stop the global production of all garments, we would still need new, green technology to clean up the waste we have already created. There are long-term strategies for green technologies such as electric cars, but where are the major companies and research institutes developing the next generation of sustainable fashion technologies? The development of new synthetic biology technologies may be the key.
From catwalk to research
I would like to share my journey from zero waste fashion design pioneer to trans-disciplinary fashion researcher to highlight the challenges faced by sustainable fashion and the need for more research.
Ten years ago, I presented my “Zero-Waste” Fashion collection at London Fashion Week. I and other sustainable designers at the time took the waste streams of other industries such as scrap materials and leftover fabric and created our collections from them. I was selected for “Estethica”, a new initiative created by sustainable fashion gurus Orsola De Castro, Filippo Ricci and Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council. Sustainable fashion was shown on London catwalks next to luxury fashion – a revolutionary step for the time.
I pioneered a way of creating tailored, high fashion garments so that all the pieces of a garment fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle and no waste was created. Conventional pattern cutting creates about 15% wastage of material, even if the pattern has been optimised by a computer. I wanted to systemically change the way clothing was made.
But the problem with zero-waste design is that it is very difficult to create. It requires a skilled designer to simultaneously imagine the garment as a 3D item and a flat pattern, while trying to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw. It is easy to make an unfitted or baggy garment, but creating something that looks good and fits the body was a real challenge.
Even after all these years, most contemporary zero-waste fashion is still not tailored to the body. I practised this technique for years to master it. It required breaking all the rules of conventional pattern-making and creating new techniques based on advanced mathematics.
These were exciting times. Our fabrics were organic, we made everything locally and ensured everyone was paid an ethical wage. The press loved our story. But problems started to emerge when it came to sales. We had to sell more expensive garments, using a smaller range of fabrics – our materials and labour costs were higher than those of companies that produced overseas. Often fashion buyers would say they loved what we did, but after looking at the price tag would politely take their business elsewhere.
As a sustainable fashion designer, my impact was limited. It was also impossible to teach zero-waste fashion design without explaining how advanced mathematics applied to it. It was time to try a new approach, so I decided to apply science and maths to traditional fashion techniques.
My PhD research explored the underlying geometry of fashion pattern-making. Combining fashion with science allowed the traditional techniques and artistry of making garments to be explained and communicated to scientist and engineers.
In the meantime, fast fashion companies rapidly expanded, with Zara, Topshop and H&M reaching Australia by 2011. They produced massive amounts of cheap products making low margins on each garment. Consumers quickly became addicted to the instant gratification of this retail experience. The size and scale of their production produced hundreds of tonnes of garments every day.
The limits of fashion technology
Fast fashion companies such as H&M have developed recycling initiatives in which consumers can exchange old clothing for discount vouchers. This is supposed to prevent clothing from going to landfill, instead recycling it into new clothing.
However, there are those who are sceptical of H&M’s recycling process. In 2016, investigative journalist Lucy Siegle crunched the numbers and concluded that “it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste”. This, she said, was the amount of clothing they produce in about 48 hours.
A 2016 H&M sustainability report reveals that only 0.7% of their clothes are actually made from recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials. In the report, H&M acknowledges :
Today, this is not possible because the technology for recycling is limited. For this reason, the share of recycled materials in our products is still relatively small.
In fact, their 2016 annual report states that more research is needed:
if a greater proportion of recycled fibres is to be added to the garments without compromising quality, and also to be able to separate fibres contained in mixed materials.
Sustainable technologies strive for a “circular economy”, in which materials can be infinitely recycled. Yet this technology is only in its infancy and needs much more research funding. H&M’s Global Change Award funds five start-up companies with a total of 1 million Euros for new solutions. Contrast this with the millions required by the most basic Silicon Valley start-ups or billions for major green technology companies such as Tesla or SolarCity. There is a dire need for disruptive new fashion technology.
Many of the promising new technologies require getting bacteria or fungi to grow or biodegrade the fabrics for us – this is a shift to researching the fundamental technologies behind fashion items.
For example, it takes 2700L of water and over 120 days to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt. However, in nature, bacteria such as “acetobacter xylinum” can grow a sheet of cellulose in hours. Clothing grown from bacteria has been pioneered by Dr Suzanne Lee. If a breakthrough can be made so that commercially grown cotton can be grown from bacteria, it may be possible to replace cotton fields with more efficient bacteria vats.
But why just stick with cotton? Fabrics can be generated from milk, seaweed, crab shells, banana waste or coconut waste. Companies such as Ecovate can feed fabric fibres to mushroom spore called mycelium to create bioplastics or biodegradable packaging for companies such as Dell. Adidas has 3D printed a biodegradable shoe from spider silk developed by AM silk.
Although I began my journey as a fashion designer, a new generation of materials and technologies has pulled me from the catwalk into the science lab. To address these complex issues, collaboration between designers, scientist, engineers and business people has become essential.
To clean up the past and address the waste problems of the future, further investment in fashion technology is urgently needed.
*This story first appeared on The Conversation
The Global Change Award is one of the world’s largest innovation challenges founded by the H&M Foundation, in collaboration with Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, aiming to catalyze early innovations that can accelerate the shift from a linear to a circular fashion industry.
In 2016, the Global Change Award received 2885 applications from 130 countries. By leveraging Accenture’s capabilities in analytics and data visualization on this large data set, the H&M Foundation was able to identify insights on future trends within sustainable fashion. The intent of this trend report is to provide valuable guidance on the transformative journey towards a circular fashion industry.
College of Human Ecology faculty and student efforts to advance sustainable approaches to textile and fashion design has led to the development of the Cornell Natural Dye Garden after a successful crowdfunding campaign that ended in fall 2016.
The project raised $10,365 for the development and cultivation of a dye garden, which will produce a variety of colors that come from the natural world and have a lower environmental impact.
“We know that synthetic dyes cause incredible environmental harm and pollute waterways. Human health is also impacted, particularly for laborers in the textile dyeing industries,” said Denise Green, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design.
According to organizers, up to 200,000 tons of synthetic dyes are discharged into waterways around the globe every year, making textile dye plants the second-largest polluter of water after agriculture.
In many developing nations where textiles are produced, workers may not be properly protected from the toxic chemicals used to dye fibers and fabrics, making synthetic dyes hazardous to environmental and human health, Green said.
In contrast, natural dyes, some of which come from weeds, are nontoxic. Some of these dye plants have the ability to grow aggressively without herbicides or fungicides.
“We believe natural dyes are an opportunity to make a sustainable intervention in the apparel supply chain,” Green said.
In May 2015, Green, in collaboration with fellow fiber science and apparel design faculty and students, as well as Human Ecology Facilities Services and Cornell Botanic Gardens staff, planted a test garden of natural dye plants at the northeast corner of the Human Ecology Building overlooking Beebe Lake.
“That success led us to the idea to put the garden in a place that’s more accessible for students and more visible in terms of our college life,” Green said.
In spring 2016, Green and her students moved the garden to a plot located in the courtyard between Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and the Human Ecology Building. The relocation of the garden, according to Green, allows students and faculty to grow a wider array of dye plants to be used in teaching and research.
“The new location is highly visible,” Green said, adding that plans are in place to add educational signage for the 2017 growing season.
“Signage means that the garden won’t just be beautiful to look at, and valuable as a natural dye resource, but it will also be an opportunity to educate students, staff and the public about the plants we are growing and the range of colors they yield,” she said.
Beyond working on projects, Green hopes the garden will have deep and long-lasting impacts on fiber science and apparel design students who begin careers in the manufacturing and fashion industries.
“Our hope is they become conscientious citizens of the world who think about the impact that their design will have on the environment, on human health and on many people, which we don’t often think about when we consume fashion,” Green said.
*This story first appeared on Cornell News
Reebok has announced it wants to produce plant-based footwear made from organic cotton and corn.
The US-based company, which is a subsidiary of adidas, has launched the Cotton + Corn initiative as part of its effort to make footwear from “things that grow” instead of materials that aren’t biodegradable.
“Unfortunately, the fact is most shoes just end up in landfills, which is something we are trying to change,” said Reebok president Matt O’Toole.
“As a brand, we will be focusing on sustainability with the Cotton + Corn programme as well as other initiatives we have in the works.”
The sportswear brand has teamed up with DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products, which produces a biodegradable rubber known as Susterra propanediol that is derived from industrial-grown corn.
The soles of the shoes will be made using this rubber while the rest will be composed of organic cotton.
“This is really just the first step for us,” said Bill McInnis, of Reebok Future. “With Cotton + Corn we’re focused on all three phases of the product lifecycle.
“First, with product development we’re using materials that grow and can be replenished, rather than the petroleum-based materials commonly used today.
“Second, when the product hits the market we know our consumers don’t want to sacrifice on how sneakers look and perform.
“Finally, we care about what happens to the shoes when people are done with them. So we’ve focused on plant-based materials such as corn and cotton at the beginning, and compostability in the end.”
The company wants to bring its plant-based trainers to market later this year.
*This story first appeared on BT
In a bid to check the water quality, the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) has enhanced its monitoring locations from the earlier 104 sites across the state to 131.The move has been initiated as per the National Water Monitoring Programme undertaken by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) which has notified sampling and analysis procedures for these sites.The board is supposed to undertake the monthly monitoring of water quality with effect from March. Information will be duly uploaded on the board’s site. The CPCB is directly monitoring the water and air quality undertaken by the state board at these sites.
Out of the 27 new sites, three pertain to the Nalagarh industrial area on the Chikni river where the presence of textile units has become a cause of concern for the board. Two other sites at the Giri river and Surajmukhi Nullah in Solan will also be monitored henceforth. Four sites in Una district, including the one upstream of the Swan river, will be monitored. Barely one site in Kangra district on the Beas has been included in the new arrangement while maximum of six sites in Sirmaur district, including the Giri river, Salani Nullah, two sites along the Markanda river, Rampur Jattan Moginand Nullah and Roon Nullah. Besides, three sites in Kullu, three in Kinnaur and two in Chamba have been included for water monitoring.
With no staff enhancement in the four laboratories of the board which were operating at Parwanoo, Jasur, Sundernagar and Paonta Sahib, the staff will face an added challenge of analysing water samples from 31 new locations.Despite the Central Pollution Control Board having directed the SPCB to upgrade its Parwanoo lab as per the specifications of the National Accreditation Board of Calibration and Testing of Laboratories (NABL) within 90 days in October 2015, it is yet to meet these standards. The board is yet to enhance its staff and upgrade its equipment as per the NABL norms.
Member Secretary, SPCB, Sanjay Sood, said they would soon appoint more staff as certain posts were vacant and the process to procure requisite equipment was also under way.He said the process of meeting NABL specifications for the Parwanoo lab was in progress and would be completed in the coming months. Sood said in addition to the 131 Centrally-monitored sites for water pollution, there were 157 state-monitored sites too where they were keeping a check on the quality of surface water.
*This story first appeared on The Tribune India
Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive. And I do get that. When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.
Is ethical clothing expensive though? When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive. This $120 dress (approximately £96 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’, is pretty similar to this £35 dress from a company with no ethical statement. Why would you spend £60 more on a dress that’s pretty similar? It’s hard to make the maths add up.
When you sit and think about that £35 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £35, and still make a profit. If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money. By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.
So could the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive?
You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?
Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically. In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016 the average price of home was £205,000 according to the same report. The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.
It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.
What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you can buy a top for less than £5 in 2017.
Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically. I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but The New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes. They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear. This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.
The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions. This ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.
We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing. If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper. You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap. Yet going back to the £96 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2017, if not more.
It’s also also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending. I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before. The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.
More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded. Cheaper prices clearly mean consumers value their clothes less.
So what’s the answer? By suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries’ economies. In 2014 the ready made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages. It’s a tricky situation.
I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing. Buying less; not buying into trends; and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward. I’ve previously written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.
As consumers we also have to act more responsibly. YouTube haul videos, like this one where the vlogger boasts to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.
Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people start shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.
Perhaps we have to therefore have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying much much less is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.
*This story first appeared on Huffington Post